The judiciary of Massachusetts has been divided across three levels: the Supreme Judicial Court which is the governing, apex judicial entity in the state, the appeal courts and the trial courts that handle the bulk of all civil and criminal matters entering the legal machinery of the area. The tribunals on every rung have their own distinctive set of powers and jurisdiction.
The trial courts: These are the largest part of the judicial hierarchy of the state and at the base of the legal pyramid. All cases, whether civil or criminal are started in these court rooms. So, these tribunals handle an array of matters from petition for arrest warrants to civil matters that involve suing a service provider for monetary compensation.
Trial courts are further divided into 7 departments that have been granted the authority to handle specific types of matters although many of these lower tribunals share jurisdiction with other trial courts. For instance, divorces are tackled by family courts while cases involving wills and inheritance are heard by probate courts. However, most criminal and civil cases are heard by district and superior courts.
The MA Superior Courts:These tribunals hear civil cases where the compensation amount exceeds $25,000. The damages claimed also have to be real and not speculative. For instance, if you are claiming damage to your house to the tune of $2500 but are expecting the neighbor to also hand you an additional $22,500 for emotional distress, the matter will quickly be bundled over to the district court. Criminal trials are also taken to superior courts and they can be decided on by the judge or the jury depending on the sparring parties. There are 20 superior courts across Massachusetts.
MA District Courts: When it comes to civil matters, there is no upper limit placed on the compensation amount. District Courts handle the bulk of the state’s civil and criminal cases with more than 168 justices serving the tribunals at this level. As far as criminal matters are concerned, district courts will only hear misdemeanor cases where the penalty involves a prison term of less than 5 years. Most cases are bench trials although in some matters, the defense and prosecution are given the right to choose between jury and bench trials. There are 69 district courts all across MA.
Other trial court departments in the state: Other tribunals at the trial court level which are considered departments of this court include:a land court which exclusively handles matters pertaining to real property, a juvenile court that hears matters involving children, housing courts which deal with tenant and landlord disputes, the Boston Municipal court that primarily tackles cases brought forward from the Suffolk County, Boston area and a probate and family court.
The Court of Appeals of Massachusetts is the tribunal that people approach when they are less than satisfied with the verdict of a district or superior court. Usually, only a small percentage of civil cases are appealed. In contrast, criminal matters are frequently taken to the higher tribunal for a reconsideration of the verdict.
The primary responsibility of this tribunal is to correct any legal errors that may have occurred during the course of the trial. So, cases are not reheard at this point hence there are no jurors. Instead, all matters that go to the appellate court are heard by a panel of 3 judges. The MA Court of Appeals is located in Boston and all reviews from lower tribunals are taken to this court except for those involving first degree murder charges.
The Supreme Court
This is the apex tribunal of the state that has original and discretionary jurisdiction. By law all first degree murder case reviews are handled directly by the Supreme Judicial Court. This tribunal plays an important role in shaping the laws of the state and protecting the rights of the citizens. One of its core responsibilities is to interpret laws passed by the parliament and ensure that these are implemented.